It’s 1994, and Michael Stipe recently lost his religion. It’s before Bieber and bling, before ordering a latte required six qualifying adjectives. In coffeehouses across the country, bored teens slouch on thrift-store couches nodding along to the Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Weezer breaks into the alt-rock scene with the Blue Album ; Green Day tops the charts with the first punk rock song to whine about a lousy therapist. In April, hordes of fans gather in Seattle Park to mourn the death of Kurt Cobain. A few months later, 350,000 people make the pilgrimage to Saugerties, New York for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock.
The same summer, in Peoria, Illinois, the gospel artist known simply as Carman takes the stage at a sold-out stadium concert. Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, high-top sneakers, and neon Ray-Bans, he calls out to a crowd of cheering young people: “Who’s in the House?”
If you’re not familiar with the 1990s contemporary Christian music scene, Carman was kind of a big deal. Born Dominic Licciardello in Trenton, New Jersey, Carman began his career as a Las Vegas lounge singer, then got saved and spent much of the ’70s and ’80s dominating the Christian adult contemporary market. At this concert, he opened with the hit single from his 1993 album The Standard, a project designed to court a younger audience.
“Who’s in the House” is a hip-hop track about the presence of the Lord. Through megaphone distortion, Carman rapped a few lines: “You take him high / you take him low / you take JC wherever you go,” then led into a call and response hook reminiscent of ’80s-era De La Soul. “Tell me who’s in the house? JC!”
If you’re wondering what teenager in her right mind would listen to a forty-year-old Vegas showman with a Jersey accent rap about Jesus, the answer is: me. In junior high, I saw Carman in concert three times. The Standard was the first CD I ever bought. I rocked out to Carman on my Walkman on the way to youth group and dished with my girlfriends about what a hottie he was. At the concerts, I bought his T-shirts and posters, and when he called out “Who’s in the House?” I made my arms into letters, YMCA-style, with the rest of the crowd and shouted “JC!”
I was homeschooled up until tenth grade, and my social life revolved around church. I grew up submersed in evangelical youth culture: reading Brio magazine, doing devotions in my Youth Walk Bible, eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Left Behind series, and developing a taste in music that ran the gamut from Christian rap to Christian pop to Christian rock.